Indiana Drones and the First Crusade

The FAA released a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” for the operation of unmanned aircraft systems weighing less than 55 pounds.

Drone

David Martin/Flickr

Some of the proposed rules include:

  • Drone operators must be 17 years old and pass a knowledge exam
  • Operators must remain within line-of-sight
  • Fly at or below 500 feet
  • Fly no more than 100 mph
  • Airport flight paths, restricted airspace, and temporary flight restrictions are prohibited for drone operation

At first glance, I think those rules are mostly common sense, which is to say they seem to benefit us pilots flying aircraft more than people flying drones. They also prevent the kind of insanity Amazon hinted at when they proposed package delivery by drone service. I started imagining drones buzzing 100 feet above the treetops, mindlessly tracking to our doorsteps to drop off the newest iPad or a pair of boots or whatever. To be honest, I imagine much further out, with hundreds, thousands, swarms of drones zipping around; my imagination is probably too inclined to a dystopian sci-fi future.

The FAA will accept public comment for a few months, then they’ll deliberate for a while longer and finally make an official rule change in the public record. The problem is that us pilots don’t have as much influence as an entity such as Amazon, and I’m afraid that the balance of the rules, currently in favor of pilots flying aircraft, will tip towards the drone operators. It’s a classic situation, the drone operators can claim the government is harming a potential market with unnecessary regulations which will undermine the case for greater safety concerning the people flying aircraft (and their passengers), who have much more to lose than a drone operator.

Imagine if this 10 pound goose were a 30 pound quadcopter:

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Pilot Selfies, apples, and oranges

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The NTSB recently release a “probable cause” report on the fatal crash of a Cessna 150 in Colorado last May. The agency determined the probable cause of the accident to be:

The pilot’s loss of control and subsequent aerodynamic stall due to spatial disorientation in night instrument meteorological conditions. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s distraction due to his cell phone use while maneuvering at low-altitude.

That last line is the first time the agency has identified cell phone use as a contributing factor to a fatal accident. They based that conclusion on footage from a GoPro camera, recorded on the penultimate flight a few minutes earlier, that showed “the pilot and various passengers…taking self-photographs with their cell phones and, during the night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern.”

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Sequest-ow-er

Today the FAA issued a press release detailing at least one of their responses to the recent “sequester” of across-the-board spending cuts dimwittedly implemented by Congress.

Trenton, NJ - Mercer County Airport (KTTN)

In a not-so-surprising move, they decided to close 149 traffic control towers across 38 states, representing about a third of the nation’s 500+ control towers. You can see the full list here. The closures will begin April 7th and will fulfill at least part of the $637 million in cuts required by the sequester.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

Indeed, it is estimated that about 2,500 jobs will be lost, and could affect the $200 million in business revenue these airports generate collectively. But that’s actually the less important issue, in my opinion a distant second, to the issue of safety.

“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

It is true that there is plenty of flying done every day at non-towered airports around the country. We as pilots are trained to monitor and self-announce our positions and intentions on the common traffic advisory frequency, or CTAF. That system works, but as Richard Collins explains in his very interesting book The Next Hour, “there is no regulation about using this, only a recommendation.” He goes on to cite that “the NTSB has found that midair collisions most often involve recreational flights…flying at or near uncontrolled airports below 1,000 feet above the ground.”

Just last week I encountered a situation at my local uncontrolled airport that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I was out flying in the pattern with other students and instructors, practicing short- and soft-field landings and takeoffs, when an airplane decided to join the pattern in an unconventional manner (taking a shortcut). That wasn’t the only problem–although he was active in stating his intentions to join the pattern for the active runway, 10, he was in fact flying to join the pattern for the opposite runway, 28. It wasn’t until he crossed directly through the downwind leg of the busy traffic pattern, narrowly missing another aircraft, that he realized his mistake.

Sure, many of the airports whose towers will be closed might seem “sleepy” on most days. But having extra eyes on the sky is never a bad thing. They can help in emergencies, or when the weather gets bad, or when the traffic becomes congested. Let’s take for example the lone tower scheduled to be closed in New Jersey, at Trenton-Mercer Regional (KTTN, the airport shown in the photos in this post). It’s actually the first towered airport I flew to, and they were the first controllers I talked to, nervous as I was. It is not what I would consider a “sleepy” airport. According to the entry on AirNav, KTTN saw more than 200 operations per day in 2010, before Frontier Airlines added scheduled service to several destinations in the Southern US. I cannot imagine how this airport will operate without a control tower: large and small aircraft, intersecting runways, military operations, complex ramp space.

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Apparently there is the possibility of a last-minute amendment proposed in Congress to provide more funding for control towers. This seems unlikely to me, and since it has only been pegged at $50 million, may be insufficient anyway. The FAA mentioned that the towns themselves, such as Trenton, could take on the cost of operating the control tower.

Some communities will elect to participate in FAA’s non-federal tower program and assume the cost of continued, on-site air traffic control services at their airport

This may also be somewhat difficult. I’m not sure there are many cities and towns that have room under their financial belts, let alone the aviation saavy, to take on this responsibility.

So it seems as though we as pilots will just have to make due, and after my experience last week, I can’t help but worry more about safety. In a final note about traffic and midair collisions, Richard Collins had this to say after he installed a traffic alert system in his small single-engine airplane (incidentally, based out of KTTN for many years).

The main thing that I learned was that when near an airport, there’s a lot more traffic than I ever saw…

That sure is a scary thought, and with the loss of these control towers, we have many fewer eyes (or radar dishes) that we can count on to help keep enough space between our airplanes.